Two times, now. Iíve started this review two times, just listening to the album like usual, letting myself go on as naturally as I can. At some point in the writing process, the music becomes ancillary, like the clickity-clack of keys. Not so with this one. The problem is Iím still not comfortable with The Marble Index and Iím not completely sure why.
Well, actually I know why.
Itís like the sound of someone rhythmically tapping their fingers on a metal table in a cavernous room. You and this other person are all alone in this room, letís say itís a cafeteria, linoleum floors and mystery meat stains. And the only thing you can do is stare one another down. Alone in awkward silence, incensed by the stench of second-rate grub. There is a certain ambience about this album, the empty cafeteria. However, there is another quality, a quality absolutely contrary to the idea of ambience, that agitating other person. My point is I canít concentrate a lick when I listen to this album.
And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Neither. Maybe both. Iíd rather not rate this album at all. In part, Iím giving it a one star because not enough albums here get one star. But the main reason is it didnít click with me. I donít hate it, I donít like it, Iím not indifferent to it. Donít ask me to explain. Letís move on.
It would be wrong to call The Marble Index a complete three-sixty from Nicoís solo debut, Chelsea Girl. After all, both are drenched in melancholy and introspection. The only difference is each executes the drear in a different manner. Chelsea Girl might be most notable for its big name contributors (the likes of Dylan, Tim Buckley and her Velvets cohorts get credit among others) but underneath the bylines are decent, somewhat threadbare, baroque folk songs sung adeptly in Nicoís unmistakable style. The Marble Index retains only John Cale from the last list of associates. It appropriates the dour mood to boot. It abandons those song writer folky louts and gets on down with its avant-garde self.
John Caleís classical training and his work with LaMonte Young and the Dream Syndicate are the key starting points here. Set your engines to pretentious. While Nico's debut courted accessibility, The Marble Index exercises any trace of that aesthetic right from the opening ďPrelude." Caleís arrangements attempt to maneuver Nicoís lyrical stream-of-consciousness; structure isnít in the plan, the only constant, the ubiquitous viola weaving in and out from one track to another and a good old fashion drone. Nicoís words often seem to mock a chorus-verse foundation, and though sheís far from a notably remarkable wordsmith, the repetition does seem to drive home some point. Whatever that point is.
Take ďFrozen Warnings" for example. It starts out barren, Nico intonating, ďFriar hermit stumbles over/The cloudy borderline/Frozen warnings close to mine/Close to the frozen borderline." Caleís trademark drone gradually expands, twinkling and gleaming like the sun on Icelandic shores. And thatís about it. Sure, it doesnít amount to much in words.
But ďFrozen Warnings" is only one model of the Marble Index Nico. Compare the naked coolness of ďFrozen Warnings" with the alternative, tracks like ďFacing the Wind" and the album closer, ďEvening of Light." The latter is an album highlight, a somewhat frightening and grotesque statement that is fairly memorable. It extends itself from ďFrozen Warnings," maintaining the same shining qualities at first, the only difference, Nicoís chants. But as the glimmering drone grows louder, Cale spurts out jagged stabs, dissonant and contrary to said drone. By the end, itís all squeals and distorted jabs.
ďFacing the Wind" comes from a similar territory and features what almost resembles a piano melody. Beyond that is what sounds like a prepared piano piece chunking and clunking percussively as Nico declares, ďItís holding me against my will/And doesnít leave me still." On a couple tracks, Nico gets in the mix on the harmonium. Itís most prominent on ďAriís Song," an ode to her son. Iím not quite sure whatís harder to imagine, Nico the mad artist or Nico the parent.
The Marble Index is a direct statement that clocks in at just over 37 minutes. Still, I canít think of an album that proposed a more difficult or tedious first listen. You know, we get the benefit of years of hindsight with albums from other generations. This album earned itís share of write-ups; itís coming up on 30 years old now and itís a hard album to ignore. I really didnít pay any heed. Iíd like to rationalize the reasons why I donít burn this album in its place with a Bic lighter but thereís no point because I donít really hate it. I get a feeling when I know I blew some cash on a sour album. I didnít get that feeling with this one. It was compelling, but I didnít like it. More than anything, The Marble Index sounds really important. But I canít find it in me to give a big *** about that.
I donít think Iíll ever get to the point where Iíll be sitting around one lazy afternoon and think, ďyou know, I could sure go for some Marble Index right abouts now!" This album doesnít deserve one star but it got one. Iím going to highly recommend this one, not because I love it to death but because it provided me an interesting listening experience. Thatís all I can demand for from any album.